It was a “collision of two unconnecting the worlds”, said the judge. It was isolated, in a closed environment of ultra-Orthodox Jews; and the other, the painful, the complex world of a father, once inside of this community who identified as a woman. Caught in the middle, have five children, aged two to 12 years.
It has also been a collision of rights: children have contact with the love of his two parents; of religions to practise their beliefs; and transgender people to equal treatment.
Transgender woman denied contact with his ultra-Orthodox Jewish children
The question facing Mr Justice Peter Jackson was this: if a transgender ultra-Orthodox woman the right to see his children in the face of the community from the threat of being ostracized from the family, if the contact has been authorized?
Its decision this week has been one that has shocked many observers. In a 41-page judgment, which had offered a rare, intimate glimpse into a closed society, he said: “I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the probability that the children and their mother of being marginalized or excluded by the ultra-Orthodox community is so real, and the consequences so great, that this one factor, despite its many disadvantages, should prevail on the many benefits of contact.
“Therefore, I conclude with a real regret, knowing that the pain it must cause, that the father’s application for direct contact should be refused.”
The woman, of the name of J, grew up in a strict haredi community, insular subset of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in the north of Manchester. In such communities, the Jewish law governs many aspects of everyday life: dress, food, the education, the culture, the language (haredim speak Yiddish between them). The men are distinguished by their black hats and suits, long beards and peyot (curled sidelocks) and women to dress modestly and cover their hair, often with wigs. Access to television, the internet and social media is not permitted. Foreigners are rarely welcome.
J, now in his 30s, said she started to question her identity when she was six years old. She had “feelings of incongruity”, she told the Jewish Chronicle in 2015. “I tried to block the feelings. I didn’t want to believe that I was crazy … My teenage years were very confusing.”
In 2001, her parents have arranged a marriage in accordance with haredi custom. “I don’t remember much of marriage,” she told the Chronicle. “My parents are very primitive, and believe that you get married because it is the only thing that you can possibly make it. I don’t have the tools to understand things. I just wanted to make him happy.”
J tried to suppress her feelings of deep religious devotion, but tried to kill herself twice. The birth mother, called B, knew that J, a love of parents for their children, has been deeply unhappy, but she thought that it was because of a religious crisis.
Finally, with the help of a LGBT support group, I found the confidence to leave the community. She told her 12-year-old son of their intention five days prior to his departure, but the mother did not learn of J’s departure by text message after she had disappeared. Ten days later, the reason for J’s departure emerged via Facebook, causing distress to B that it has not left his house for three months.
“Even now, with all the world [of the community] aware that the father is a transgender person, she is not comfortable being in public gatherings,” the judge said. B a need a treatment to help to understand J decisions.
J said that she believed that she was the first transgendered person to have left a haredi community in the united KINGDOM. She told the court that it had since been put away: “They have to get rid of me – I have sympathy.”
But she was desperate to see his children. After the effort to maintain the contact has been ignored or dismissed, she sought legal redress.
The first day of the hearing in November, a community member has posted a message on WhatsApp: “help! SAVE!!! … We can’t afford to lose this case. The Rabbonim [rabbis] have asked for this message to send … The coach of tefilloh [power of prayer] can achieve everything.”
J told the court that she has failed the children and accept all of the conditions of contact, including back as far as possible from his former male appearance in the early stages. She had, the judge said, went to the male head of the family in an intensely structured religious community life as a single woman in the society as a whole.
“The elements of fragility and anxiety self-absorption” have been obvious, ” he said.
B said direct contact would result in her children being rejected and excluded from family events and community celebrations. “They [the parents] will protect their children from contact.” The impact of children having a relationship with their father was worse than the impact of the absence of relationship, ” she said. It was “the reality – this is who we are”.
His assessment was backed by Rabbi Andrew Oppenheimer. The Haredim, he said the court, “have traditional values and seek to guard their children and themselves against what they see as the dangers and excesses of modern and open society”.
If the contact is allowed, the family “will open to very serious consequences, indeed. The families around them that will actually be put under the ban of their … The impact on the family in such circumstances, the social isolation will be devastating.”
The rabbi said some might argue that it was “cruel, lack of tolerance, unnecessary, and denies the rights of the father”, but in Jewish law, as well as English family law, “the interests of children are paramount”.
The oldest child of the head of the institution, known as the Rabbi C, said the school could not “accept a child who has been threatened to be a party to what our culture would view as inappropriate material or experience”. The school would not offer a place to a child whose parents have been “taken to the cinema or reading of newspapers around them,” he says. There was a “very real risk … inappropriate information or the exposure could be shared with other children.”
The Experts of the Anna Freud Center, who specialized in the psychoanalysis of the child, which assessed the family at the request of the court, said that the children of the identity has been “completely related to their place in the community”.
“If children are at risk of being deprived of places at good schools and yeshivas [religious schools], and are rejected and ostracized by their peers and other members of the community, which will have a negative impact on the way they work in the broadest sense possible, both now and in the future.”
The last testimony quoted in the decision was that of J, the son, who told the judge that he would be bullied and lose his friends if he has had contact with his father. “If he cares, he will leave me alone.”
Jackson concluded: “I find that this is a very troubling case. These children are caught between two seemingly incompatible ways of life, led by small minorities in society in general … It is difficult to find these vulnerable groups in conflict situations.”
He listed the 15 arguments in favour of direct contact, which included giving the children “a few small experiences of the world [that] could even open the door for them to be able to make life choices for themselves as they grow up”.
There are two factors against, contact: the father of the reliability and of the reaction of the community. It was the second of these which has decided to be the case. “Contact clearly carries the risk that the children and their mother, who will become the next injured in a collision between two unconnecting worlds. The father has already experienced the consequences of this collision, and nobody knows better than she how painful they can be.”
The Direct contact was refused, and the judge has recommended that I have the right to write to each child four times a year. His legal team is considering the application for leave to appeal against the decision.
Rabbi Danny Rich of Liberal Judaism – to the opposite end of the spectrum, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish – said he was saddened by the judgment, and condemned the leaders of the community who “threaten to ostracise children and to use them as pawns in the game of medieval reading.”
GesherEU, a Jewish charity that helps people who leave the communities haredim, said J-children may “be worn as a part of a different generation … learned to run away from those who have gender issues and can no longer bear the pain of living a false life”. It describes the ostracising of children as abuse.
Another organization, Myvar, which supports and advises the elders of the Jews ultra-Orthodox, was told to leave the community has been an agonising choice. “Many have led a secret double life for a long time before finding the courage to make contact,” said its director, Linda, who did not want his name to be published.
“Some people feel trapped in a world that no longer meets their needs, but when they leave, they find themselves in a strange world, with almost no reference points. The process is long, difficult and very painful,” she said.